Ensign Emily Moore and Ensign Joshua Andrews stand watch aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87) while the ship operates in support of Operation Prosperity Guardian in the Gulf of Aden, Dec. 26, 2023.

Ensign Emily Moore and Ensign Joshua Andrews stand watch aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87) while the ship operates in support of Operation Prosperity Guardian in the Gulf of Aden, Dec. 26, 2023. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Krucke

The State of the Navy 2024

Amid program delays and budget choices, new CNO vows more learning and "more players on the field."

What’s going on with Navy shipbuilding?

That’s the question Secretary Carlos Del Toro asked in February, as it emerged that labor shortages were delaying construction on the lead frigate of the Navy’s new Constellation class. But that wasn’t the only program behind schedule, and so Del Toro ordered up a 45-day review of all of his service’s shipbuilding efforts. When the Navy revealed its findings in early April, the study showed every major program was a year and a half to three years behind schedule. 

What comes next isn’t yet clear. “We don’t have detailed plans of action, milestones, initiatives—we are identifying and deeply looking into where we are now in a ‘get real, get better’ approach,” Nickolas Guertin, the Navy’s chief buyer, told reporters at the Pentagon. “We found that we have issues that need to be resolved...But we don’t have all those things completely nailed down yet.” 

And just a few days later, Navy officials who were slated to offer briefings about the programs at Sea-Air-Space 2024 canceled just before the big Navy League event kicked off.

All that comes on top of the Navy’s own plans to push off many of its crewed and larger uncrewed programs in the name of budget caps and higher priorities, such as current readiness and nuclear modernization. The service’s 2025 budget proposal requests $257.6 billion for the Navy and Marine Corps, up just 0.7% from last year’s request, to comply with the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which decrees no more than a 1% increase in overall defense spending. 

“Our guidance directs us to take risk in future modernization when there are hard choices to be made,” Navy Undersecretary Erik Raven told reporters ahead of the budget’s release. He said that means prioritizing current operations and smaller developmental systems that might be ready soon, and pushing off larger ones that likely won’t.

So the 2025 proposal asks for six warships instead of the planned seven, dropping one Virginia-class submarine, and delays several developmental efforts. The purchase of the first nine Large Unmanned Surface Vessels, for example, will slip two years to begin in 2027. The arrival of the aircraft carrier currently known as CVN 82 may slide even more: the new budget proposal moves its purchase from 2028 to beyond the new five-year plan that ends in FY 2029—a schedule that is drawing dire warnings from shipbuilders and their suppliers. 

Similar delays are likely in store for even higher-profile development efforts. Compared to last year’s request, funding for the DDG(X) next-generation destroyer would drop by nearly half in 2025, and by roughly two-thirds for its F/A-XX combat jet. (The SSN(X) next-gen attack sub, on the other hand, is slated to get about 10% more than last year.) And military construction is to lose more than one-quarter of its planned amount.

So what isn’t being cut? Nuclear programs: the Columbia-class ballistic submarine, the Trident ICBM, and the TACAMO command-and-control aircraft. R&D in general, which is to get a haircut of just under 3 percent. And many smaller uncrewed-systems initiatives, in support of the Pentagon’s Replicator effort and the Navy’s own initiatives to develop, test, and create operating concepts for robots above, on, and below the waves.

Also: readiness. Soon after Adm. Lisa Franchetti took office as the 33rd chief of naval operations in November, she declared her priorities to be “warfighting, warfighters, and the foundation that supports them.” Put another way, Franchetti said, she wants “more players on the field.” It remains to be seen whether the Navy, which is again risking Congressional ire by asking permission to decommission more (costly, older, less useful) ships than it buys and to shrink from the present 293 to 287 warships next year, will ultimately be able to build up to the 381 ships and up-to-150 unmanned vessels it says it needs to fulfill its duties under the current National Defense Strategy. 

But a ship that spends a day less in the repair yard is a ship that can spend an extra day at sea. So the 2025 request includes $2.8 billion to repair and improve the four public shipyards, as well as $407 million for the Fleet Readiness Centers that maintain naval aircraft. Because the proposal was largely built under Franchetti’s predecessor, this spending reflects Adm. Mike Gilday’s four-year crusade to speed and streamline the routine and deep maintenance of Navy platforms. But Franchetti says she’s focused on that as well.

In a recent interview, Franchetti said another way to “put more players on the field” is to have some of those players be robots. The conflicts in Ukraine, the Red Sea, and elsewhere are showing the ever-increasing value of uncrewed systems on the battlefield. 

“There's a full-court press on in the R&D community to get those found, get them developed and get them out on our ships as quickly as possible,” she said, noting the new Disruptive Capabilities Office that is intended to bring uncrewed systems and other innovative technologies into the fleet. 

A ballistic missile homing in on a ship has gone from a purely theoretical occurrence to just one part of near-daily attacks in the Red Sea. Since October, Houthi forces in Yemen have been raining missiles and UAVs on shipping in nearby waters, including commercial ships and the naval vessels of the U.S. and coalition forces working to protect them. Raven said the Navy would likely request a supplemental budget to fund the extra operational expense. 

But the Navy isn’t waiting to gather and apply lessons from the conflict. The effort is led by Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center, set up in 2015 to gather, analyze, and apply lessons. Today, its staff talks weekly with commanders and crews in the Red Sea and a wide range of Navy organizations to capture and process just what happened, and what can be learned from it. 

“We set up weapons-tactics instructors, learning from our aviation community, on how to bring that tactical edge and experience to the field,” Franchetti said. “I think the investments that we made—they are really paying off, and those great lessons that we're learning about how to innovate while we're out there in the same battle space.”

The conflict is also yielding lessons in contested logistics—a key to preparing for a Pacific fight.

“We had to bring some of our ships out of the Red Sea, originally, to be able to do some of the logistics things they needed to do,” Franchetti said, “but now we've been able to work with allies and partners to be able to do that right on station and really keep everybody in the fight: cycling them off, getting their stuff reloaded. Getting their fruits, vegetables, supplies, all the things that we need to do, and be able to stay right there in the battle.”

Over her next three years as CNO, Franchetti said, she wants to encourage and propagate this kind of learning, so the fleet can figure out what it needs. 

“One of my objectives during this tour is to really be able to leverage the War College, leverage all that experimentation and then put together those concepts I talked about, so we can better understand: what are the capabilities we need to get out to the hands of the warfighters as quickly as possible?”